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Gateway to the future Bills' need for stadium improvements offers opportunity to re-create downtown

On April 15, The Buffalo News published the article "What's the Bills game plan?" in which Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon stated that the study being conducted by Populous, an architectural firm based in Kansas City, Mo., is all but complete and that the Bills believe their best option is to renovate the current stadium, which will require a minimum of $200 million, much of it in the form of public funds. Predictably, from supporters we are hearing how important the Bills are to the community and local economy; whereas, those opposed argue that there are much better ways to spend taxpayer dollars than subsidizing a profitable business, much of whose profits are enjoyed elsewhere.

While, as far as they go, the arguments on both sides of this debate have merit, I would like to suggest that we take a much broader and longer-term view, not only of the Bills, but of the city and its place in the globalized world in which we now find ourselves.

Rather than spend public funds on an aging stadium located in the suburbs, it would make much more sense to make a strategic investment in Buffalo by building a multiuse center on the site of the current Coca-Cola Field and surrounding area. This location is ideal for a project that could be called the Buffalo Niagara Gateway Center, which would be comprised of a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, a modern train station, a mass transit hub, as well as retail and cultural venues to complement Canalside.

This site is in the heart of downtown, a block from the Metro line and directly across Exchange Street from the current, very modest Amtrak train station. The Buffalo Niagara Gateway Center could transform this location into the focal point of transportation downtown, the gateway to Western New York.

Reconfiguring the bus routes that serve downtown to converge at the Gateway Center, alongside the Metro line and passenger rail station, would allow practically anyone in North America to hop on a train and come to the heart of downtown Buffalo and be within walking distance of a plethora of major league sports, entertainment, cultural, shopping and dining options.

Once here, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority would be able to transport visitors anywhere they wish to go, including the area's other popular destinations such as Niagara Falls, Elmwood Village, the Walden Galleria, etc.

In his insightful and provocative book "The Great Reset," Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, argues that the current economic crisis -- which he views as a historical resetting of the economy -- will accelerate the shift from a car-centered, suburban society to one that is much more urban. His book introduces an idea that is directly relevant to Buffalo and why the idea of the Gateway Center could be the catalyst that propels Buffalo into a new era of prosperity.

According to Florida, "the future of urban development belongs to a larger kind of geographic unit that has emerged over the past several decades: the megaregion." And in defining their growing importance: "Megaregions are to our time what suburbanization was to the postwar era They expand and intensify our use of land and space the way that the industrial city did during the First Reset and suburbia did in the Second." He adds, "the coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions."

Buffalo is located at the crossroads of three of the largest megaregions in North America:

Bos-Wash, which stretches down the Atlantic seacoast and encompasses the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It is home to more than 50 million people and $2.2 trillion in economic activity.

Chi-Pitts, which runs from Pittsburgh and Cleveland through Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis. It is home to 46 million people and $1.6 trillion in economic output.

Tor-Buff-Mon-Tawa, which includes Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. It is home to 22 million people and generates $530 billion in economic output.

A look at a map of the population density of Canada reveals a remarkable fact: No U.S. city of any significant size -- not even Detroit, our closest potential rival in this respect -- is located closer to the cultural and economic heart of Canada than Buffalo. This geographic fact needs to be more fully appreciated and made a central focus of further efforts to develop the Western New York economy.

So why isn't Buffalo the center of all things Canadian in the United States? We have more contact and interaction with Canadians than any other city or region in the United States. In this binational megaregion, our histories, our cultures and our economies are intertwined. The United States and Canada remain the world's two largest trading partners. Whether in downtown Buffalo or the greater Western New York region, every dollar spent by Canadians is counted as an export that increases America's balance of trade, provides additional income for state and local governments, helps sustain existing jobs and promotes the creation of new ones.

Munroe Eagles, director of the University at Buffalo's Canadian Studies Academic Program and director of the Binational Executive Seminar, brings leaders on both sides of the border together with the aim of strengthening bilateral ties in the region. In a recent conversation, he agreed that "Buffalo should be the gateway to the U.S. Canadian relationship, and institutions of higher learning in border communities have a special role to play in facilitating binational comity. UB is eagerly taking up that challenge."

Building the Gateway Center in sight of Canada would encourage more and longer cross-border trips, and go a long way to ensure that Buffalo receives the full benefit from its location in this unique binational region.

It should come as no surprise then that Buffalo's great strategic advantage is what it has always been: its location. Buffalo's initial prosperity began when it became the western terminus of the Erie Canal. In the 1950s, this same route became the New York State Thruway, and recently, it was designated a high-speed rail corridor by the Federal Department of Transportation.

Florida views the widespread adaptation of high-speed rail as having the potential to be a main component of the economic reset now under way. He describes it as " the one technology on the horizon that fits the geographic scale of megaregions and can help spur more intensive development of those regions."

New York State would benefit tremendously if, as a result of high-speed rail, it can once again become truly bimodal, anchored on one end by New York City and on the other end by a resurgent Buffalo. In his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo singled out Buffalo as a community that had been ignored for too long and vowed that his administration was committed to revitalization. He also declared that the state government was prepared to invest $1 billion in incentives to spur economic development.

It so happens that Populous is the same company that designed Coca-Cola Field. Once it completes its current study, the Cuomo administration should hire Populous to conduct a study of Coca-Cola Field to determine both the suitability and cost of converting it into a new home for the Bills and incorporating it into the Buffalo Niagara Gateway Center as proposed here. A look at the company's website should make it clear that Populous, whose stated mission is "to create environments that draw people and communities together for unforgettable experiences," could take the Gateway Center concept and design a signature complex worthy of Buffalo.

It appears that the Bills' top brass wants us to consider a renovated version of the status quo. I propose a very different plan, one that places the Bills in the center of the city and its future. If Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, for an estimated $1.15 billion could take the wealth generated by one successful NFL franchise and build a colossal football cathedral, surely this region, state and potentially national governments on both sides of the border could pool enough public and private resources to invest in a signature capital infrastructure project that positions the city and wider region for success in the 21st century.

Each of these visions of the future is possible; it is for us to decide which one we want. It's something to think about, but more than that, it is something we desperately need to debate.

Michael Peroha, a former resident of Williamsville, is a federal government contract specialist at Fort Drum and previously worked in the transportation industry.